Europe should counter Iran’s cyber espionage, infiltration, terrorism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Supporters of the Iranian opposition, National Council of Resistance (NCRI) hold a rally in front of the EU headquarters against the visit of Mohammad Javad Zarif the Foreign Minister of Iran in Brussels, Belgium, 15 May 2018. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

The more discord persists in the West over the means of responding to Iranian covert operations, the more impact these operations will have, writes Alejo Vidal-Quadras.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is currently the president of the Brussels-based International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ).

Both Facebook and Twitter recently announced that they had removed hundreds of accounts in the wake of revelations from the cybersecurity FireEye, which identified them as being linked to coordinated disinformation campaigns that originated with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The closure of more than 652 Facebook pages and nearly 300 Twitter timelines appears to confirm that, whereas Iranian efforts to influence public opinion in the West were already well known, they were in fact much more large-scale than previously suspected.

The Iranian campaign was reportedly less sophisticated than its more widely publiciqed Russian counterpart, but it represents a steadily growing threat to the political integrity of the US and Europe, and perhaps also to the policy outcomes of those countries.

To whatever extent this or other Iranian infiltration efforts proves successful, those outcomes could pose risks to Western security, global stability, and both the lives and political prospects for those Iranian activists who are working to change their country into something that is no more a danger to the world and more in line with the interests and values of democratic nations.

This latter threat is evident from some of the specific topics that the newly-outed campaign had sought to address. The Daily Beast reported that some of the shuttered accounts had “targeted opponents of the Iranian government, including the Mujahedeen Khalq exile group, or MEK, which advocates the overthrow of Iran’s clerical government.”

It bears mentioning that the MEK, known in English as the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), is also recognised as a driving force behind the anti-government protests that have been springing up all across Iran over the past several months, ever since the outbreak of a nationwide uprising at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.

The Western-oriented disinformation campaign is far from being the most extreme measure that the Iranian Government has utilised in an effort to quell that dissent. In June, two Iranian operatives under the direction of a leading Iranian diplomat in Vienna sought to gain access to a Paris rally organised by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political coalition which includes the MEK.

Their purpose was to bomb the event, which was being attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates, plus hundreds of political dignitaries from the US, Europe and elsewhere, but the plot was thwarted and the explosives seized by European authorities.

The significance of this was amplified this month when it was reported that the US had indicted two Iranian nationals for spying within American territory on behalf of the Islamic Republic. Their efforts also had been directed in large part against the MEK, a fact that highlights the looming spectre of terrorism stemming from any other Iranian efforts at espionage, disinformation, or infiltration.

But even if such campaigns do not reach the point of destroying westerners’ lives or property, they still pose a serious threat, and one that all the peoples and governments of the West must be equally on guard against. This is especially true at a time when the Islamic Republic continues to be rocked by anti-government protests.

As discord persists throughout the West over the proper means of responding to this crisis, Iranian disinformation could have a decisive impact. The United States recently announced the creation of an Iran Action Group with the stated mission of facilitating comprehensive change in the behaviour of the Iranian government.

The escalating protests inside the regime make it clear that this goal is far more attainable than some people might assume – especially if those people have been unwittingly reading Iranian propaganda that describes the opposition MEK and its affiliates as terrorists or as anything other than natural allies of Europe and Western democracies.

This week Reuters reported that France has now banned its diplomats from travelling to Iran following the foiled Iranian terror plot on NCRI’s Paris rally in June.

The truth is that the NCRI President Maryam Rajavi has outlined a ten-point plan for the future of the country, which aptly described universal values of democratic governance, secularism, self-determination, abolishment of death penalty and safeguards on human rights for all persons without regard to gender, ethnic, or religious affiliation.

And what’s more, although the Iranian people are not able to reach international audiences with the sort of coordinated messaging that has been pouring out of Tehran, it is increasingly apparent that much of the Iranian population support such a change of their regime.

All that is needed under those circumstances is the most basic international support. European policymakers must not allow Iranian disinformation to derail that. And at the same time, they must never lose sight of the fact that Tehran will go to any lengths to prevent the further proliferation of pro-democracy activism either at home or abroad.

Until that activism triumphs over the clerical regime, the world must remain on guard, taking action wherever possible to disrupt Iranian efforts at cyber espionage, infiltration, terrorism, and more.

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